On Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said U.S. troop commanders have the authority to leave the Kabul airport in Afghanistan on a “case-by-case basis” to find and bring U.S. citizens back to the airport who are unable to get through the various crowds and Taliban checkpoints in the way.
Kirby acknowledged during a Pentagon press briefing that the U.S. military has used helicopters in at least two instances, to extract Americans and bring them to the airport.
One reporter said, “We know about the chinooks last Thursday at the (inaudible) hotel, have there have been additional cases since then? Can you tell us any details about that?”
Kirby replied, “There has been at least one additional incident — instance where rotary airlift was used to help Americans get from outside the airport into the airport.”
During the press briefings, Kirby offered few specifics about the rescue efforts that have taken place outside the Kabul airport so far.
Kirby did tell the Times of Israel that on Thursday, three Army helicopters picked up 169 Americans near a hotel outside the U.S. military perimeter at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and flew them onto the airfield.
The Times of Israel also reported the second helicopter-based evacuation by U.S. troops took place on Monday and saw 16 U.S. citizens evacuated.
News of these evacuations outside the Kabul airport come after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last Wednesday, “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people” outside the airport perimeter. Austin said, “The forces that we have are focused on security at the airfield. I don’t want to detract from that.”
By Thursday, several Republican lawmakers called on President Joe Biden to authorize U.S. troops to leave the Kabul airport and provide safe passage for U.S. citizens unable or afraid to reach the Kabul airport on their own.
During a Thursday interview, Fox News’ Bret Baier asked Kirby about reports of British troops rescuing their own citizens in Afghanistan and why U.S. troops could not carry out similar operations. Kirby responded, “We have not seen any great impediments to the safe passage that the Taliban have agreed to facilitate. Americans are getting through those checkpoints, and they are getting on to the base, on the airfield, and they are being flown out of Kabul. I won’t speak to potential future operations that may or may not be conducted.”
By Monday, Kirby’s position on sending troops to retrieve trapped Americans had changed.
“On occasion, as needed, our commanders have the authority that they need to use their assets and their forces to help assist Americans who need to get to the airport, get to the airport on a case-by-case basis,” Kirby told reporters on Monday. “I don’t want to leave you with the idea that we’re somehow patrolling the streets of Kabul, but on occasion, where there’s a need and there’s a capability to meet that need, our commanders on the ground are doing what they feel they need to do to help Americans reach the airport.”
The effort to evacuate Americans faces a potentially dangerous deadline next week. While Biden has suggested U.S. troops could continue evacuation efforts beyond August 31 — the timeline he set in July for the end of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan — the Taliban has warned that August 31 is a “red line” and “if the U.S. or U.K. were to seek additional time to continue evacuations – the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.”